Friday, March 14, 2008

Censoring the Environment II

Who censored the final chapter of Ministry for the Environment's State of the Environment report? After some digging with the OIA, I have an answer: it was MAF.

First, a recap: the State of the Environment report was supposed to be a summary of key environmental indicators. When the report was released, the absence of any conclusions was noted, then the draft final chapter was leaked to the Greens. According to Trevor Mallard, the chapter was pulled because it was not supported by the facts - an assertion which is laughable if you actually bother to read it. MfE gave a different story:

peer review of the draft conclusions chapter by central government agencies and regional councils made clear that it qualitative content was not in line with the factual nature of the report
But according to documents obtained under the Official Information Act, the draft was commented on by five agencies: the Ministries of Fisheries, Agriculture and Forestry, Health, and Transport, and the Treasury. Contrary to MfE's claims, no regional councils were part of the process. And contrary to their implication, the comments were mainly supportive. MFish mainly tweaked grammar, and made one substantive suggestion around the characterisation of the number of species in the Quota Management System. Ministry of Health suggested a better wording of urbanisation statistics. Transport wanted the report to highlight the number of deaths due to car exhausts. Treasury suggested a tighter wording for the section on "economic drivers and land use", and questioned the absence of material on the government's sustainability agenda.

In fact, the only peer reviewer which appeared unhappy with the draft was MAF, whose first comment sets the tone for the rest: "why is the land-based sector singled out as having legacy problems"?

From there on, it's the sort of exercise you would expect from any entrenched industry group. They criticise the content as "emotive". They demand greater highlighting of industrial (rather than farm) pollution. Taking lessons from the tobacco lobby and climate change denial industry, they question the evidence (though without any evidence or argument themselves) for the effects of increased fertiliser use and increased stocking rates on water quality. They object to any suggestion that land might need to be managed to prevent environmental problems. And then they go on to talk about urban planning... the basic approach seems to be "this makes farmers look bad, therefore it must be shot down, wherever, however".

In short, it is a perfect example of industry "capture" of a government Ministry, and the comments seem to have been enough to get the entire conclusion pulled.

This raises even more questions. Not only do we have a supine Ministry for the Environment which censors "unhelpful" information; we also have a Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry which has been taken over by and is advocating for the interests of the very people it is meant to be regulating. The latter can not be good for policy in the area, and it is not good for the public. The evidence clearly shows that what is good for farmers is not good for New Zealand. And if MAF holds the opposite view, then I think they need to be reminded who they are working for.

Update: An archive of MAF's feedback on the draft is here.